Director: Frank Borzage
Andrew Sarris has called the director Frank Borzage "an uncompromising romanticist . . . [with] a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity," a description of Borzage's work well illustrated by Three Comrades. Based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front), the movie opens on Armistice Day in 1918. Three war buddies from the German military—Erich (Robert Taylor), Otto (Franchot Tone), and Gottfried (Robert Young)—are celebrating the end of World War I in a tavern and making plans for the future. When a German officer proposes a toast in honor of all those who have died in the war—German, British, French, American, and Italian alike—the three young men are clearly in accord with his feelings. Meanwhile, at a nearby table three stiff-necked officers bristle at these sentiments of reconciliation with former enemies, foreshadowing future confrontations between nationalistic fascists and those who believe in tolerance and peace like the three young comrades.
Two years later the German economy has collapsed and the three young men, their lives permanently marked by their war experiences, are barely eking out a living from the garage and taxi service they run. When they drive to a rural tavern to celebrate Erich's birthday, they encounter a young woman named Patricia (Margaret Sullavan), a "fallen aristocrat" who has lost her money in the postwar financial crash. All three are enchanted by her, but it is Erich with whom she falls in love. Against this background of economic hardship and political unrest, the lovers struggle to maintain their relationship and the three comrades their close friendship. Complicating the situation even further, Patricia is seriously ill with tuberculosis and Gottfried has become involved with a pacifist political group that is the target of the nascent fascist movement. Still, the four are able to maintain a camaraderie that cannot be touched by the problems of the time. "Where you walk," Otto says to Patricia at one point, "we three walk beside you."
Throughout the film Borzage deftly maintains a fine balance between the romantic and the realistic. Always in the background, and at times irrupting into the foreground, is the threat to love and friendship caused by economic difficulties and political discord. But the main emphasis of the film is the romance, and ultimately the marriage, between Patricia and Erich. Although events of the time are never neglected, it is plainly the personal element of the story that most interests Borzage—the emotional effects of outside events on these four people and the way they are unable to avoid the complications to their lives caused by those events. The realistic underpinnings of this deeply romantic film give it a profoundly moving, richly emotional quality that a strictly sentimental love story could never attain.
Borzage's sensitive direction, the elegant cinematography of Joseph Ruttenberg (The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight, Gigi), and the unobtrusively fluid editing all contribute to the strength of the movie. But this is above all else a movie about the emotional lives of its characters, the kind of film dependent on actors to put the story across. Borzage uses Taylor's pretty-boy blandness to good effect, making obvious the appeal of his hopeful, boyish personality to the world-weary Patricia. Young, who has the smallest role, is perhaps a bit mild as the most political of the three comrades, an idealist whose war experiences have transformed him into a committed activist. I kept wondering if a more passionate actor like the young James Stewart might have made a stronger impression in the role. Tone, as the most intelligent of the three, has never been better—by turns relaxed and intense, and although clearly in love with Patricia himself, deferential to her stronger feelings for Erich. Together the three men form a sort of trine of the masculine personality: emotions, action, and intellect.
Regular readers of The Movie Projector will be aware of how much I admire Margaret Sullavan and how strongly I feel that she deserves to be better known. (For more about her life and career, see my post on The Good Fairy.) In Three Comrades she gave probably the best performance of her relatively brief screen career, receiving an Oscar nomination and winning the New York Film Critics Circle award for best actress. (She lost the Oscar to Bette Davis for Jezebel.) Her marvelous Patricia, a woman of outward frailty and inner strength, is the glue that holds the movie together. Having lost her money and her health, she has resigned herself with stoical acceptance to a forlorn future. Yet she hasn't altogether lost her sense of humor—even if it has a touch of the gallows in it—or her capacity to accept and return love when she finds it. She is too much of a realist to nurture the false hope that her happiness with Erich will last; she is enough of a fatalist to know that forces outside their control make that unlikely. But she is completely willing to live for the present in the glow of their feelings for each other while she has the chance. When she recognizes that the time to let go of Erich has come, she does so with selflessness and grace. It is a performance of rare delicacy, nuance, and serenity.
One last thing I should mention is that Three Comrades is the only screenplay officially credited to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was not pleased with what MGM did with his script, though, and understandably so. In 1938 MGM still wanted to protect the distribution of its movies in Germany and actually submitted the script to the German ambassador to the US, who wanted certain changes made. All overt references to anything that might be construed as reflecting badly on contemporary Germany or the Nazi party were modified or removed. Even though in retrospect it's easy to see implicit criticism of Nazi Germany and the post-World War I attitudes which brought the Nazis to power, this criticism is so generic that there is no denying that the movie sidesteps crucial political issues. It wouldn't be until the powerful anti-Nazi film The Mortal Storm (again starring Sullavan) in 1940—with World War II begun in Europe, although the US was not yet involved—that Borzage was able to criticize the Nazis openly.